"The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr" is a ridiculous mess of a play, in the best of ways. In the Rep's latest offering, a three-person cast races their way through Shakespeare's catalog in just shy of 100 minutes worth of madcap comedy. It's parody and homage all at once, as well as an unorthodox attempt to pique interest in the Bard's work.
The action takes place in and around the three actors' broken-down van, which occupies the middle of the stage on a revolving pedestal; a classic blue Port-A-Potty stands stage right. With the breeziness of professionals having a very good time at doing something very silly, actors Avery Clark, Patrick Halley and Ethan Paulini skip merrily from a Paula Deen wig to a Hamlet doublet, from a simpering Romeo to a Duck Dynasty-fied Polonius, from Juliet to Cleopatra to Ophelia. The only constant is their brightly colored Converse All-Stars. Between the set, the costumes, and the relentless manic energy of the performers, "Wllm Shkspr" is about as close as you can get to watching a live-action cartoon.
It's the sheer talent of the actors that carries the play. There's always a slight vicarious anxiety that comes with watching live comedy, but it's clear from the first line that these guys know exactly what they're doing. Though most of "Wllm Shkspr" is rehearsed, it succeeds in obtaining the loose yet frantic energy of improv comedy. There's a good dose of audience participation, especially in the second act. The theater on opening night was kept laughing throughout practically the entire performance.
The humor ranges from the unapologetically slapstick to the slyly literary. At the risk of seeming like a killjoy, it's my opinion that the corniness was a little too thick at times — a few too many knees-to-the-groin and tired Arkansas gags. Still, in the tradition of the best of cartoons, there was plenty of material for the adults to enjoy that coexisted right alongside the kid-accessible jokes.
On the other side of the coin, "Wllm Shkspr" also succeeds in smuggling some educational spinach inside that rollicking brownie. It's possible you'll come away with a new appreciation of the possibilities of Shakespearean theater, especially if — like me — you're less than well versed to begin with. For example, take an extended scene in which the actors enlisted the crowd's help in articulating "the id, the ego, and the superego" of Ophelia of "Hamlet" as captured in a single moment of non-dialogue. Beneath all the shouting and laughter that ensued, there was a playful lesson in character development. It was simultaneously a skewering of the pretensions of theater and a reminder of the complexity that goes into professional performance (and the literature that underlies it).
"The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr" continues at The Rep through June 29.